Motivation and Big Projects

For #notGDC

What’s all this then?

I found out about #notGDC this year and decided I would like to contribute. Promptly after deciding that I realized I don’t have anything to contribute. My life as an indie game developer so far includes a bunch of unfinished projects, a few Android apps that never saw any popularity, and an unfinished game that I’ve been working on for three years with no sign of completion any time soon. Then I realized maybe that is what I have to offer. Some experience in working on only one project for a long time and managing the motivational struggles that come with that.

Me

Everything I write here is my personal take on working on a project for a long time. I can’t talk for anyone else but maybe someone will relate and take comfort in the knowledge that they aren’t alone in these challenges. Please keep in mind I’m not relying on the project to be a financial success to survive. I have no experience with the financial aspects of game development yet and so my perspective might not be accurate to some. This is all based on my own experiences.

So here we go!

For context, I’ve been working on a game called The Cardinal Crusade for three years so far. I spend as much time as I can manage each week on it and I’m not working alone which I think helps a lot when it comes to staying motivated. I work with two other people. One on art and graphics design, and another on music and sounds. Their names are Anton Jonsson and Robert Harrison respectively.

Working on one project for so long is taxing. I’m sure I’m not the only one to think that and I’m almost certain I’m not the first person to write about it. The main issue I face is motivation.

The Project Begins!

Motivation for a big project seems to come and go at random times. The first huge wave of motivation tends to be the start of the project. That idea sparks you to get to work on this awesome game! You’re excited to see everything starting to take shape as your box does it’s first jump or your play button takes you to your first test level. There is a lot of excitement in the start of a project. Things tend to progress really fast in the beginning and most of what you’re doing is adding exciting new features and content to the game. It’s so fun and so motivating!

But then it happens… A bug! Where did it come from? How do you fix it? Suddenly that wave of progression comes to a sudden halt as you stop to fix whatever is going wrong. Typically the first few times this happens its fine. Motivation stays high and progression isn’t halted too many times or for too long. Of course that situation can vary though.

As you move on, and keeping in mind this is in regard to a big project, something starts to happen. Each task becomes less exciting to complete, you start adding less content less often, and a single step of progression is less significant. At first you were making your player able to move for the first time. That’s a major step and important for your game but once it was done that was it. Your player can now move and is ready for the rest of your game. That big step of progression is in the past. Each step towards the end tends to become less exciting as you work on less exciting features. Instead of adding something every day, you start tweaking. You might spend a day on UI, or fix a few bugs, or add an extra line of dialog. The tasks you’re doing tend to become more bland the further the project develops and motivation gets lower and lower. At least, that’s my experience.

Self Doubt

As motivation drops and the tasks at hand become less exciting your drive to complete this project tends to suffer greatly. This seems to be about the stage where you’re tempted by a new game idea. There is temptation to work on something else, and leave this project behind. Is this large project even worth the time? Will people even play it? Is this all a waste? These are the kinds of questions you might ask yourself. These are the questions I ask myself.

You tend to start to doubt yourself and the game. If you’re like me and many other indies out there that lack an existing audience who know your work and are excited for more of it, spending a lot of time on one project can seem like a bad idea. In fact, I’ve read plenty of articles stating this. “Big projects are too slow. Release more games more often. A big project probably won’t succeed and is a waste of time”. These things seem to get stated as big scary warnings, and I’m not about to say they’re wrong, but I will say they are scary. Those kinds of warnings can be the death of what could have been an amazing game. I’m not going to say ignore them, they aren’t false warnings and could often amount to be true. But they aren’t written rules either. A big project can be worth your time. But it’s risky.

This is the time where big projects tend to die. The point of doubt. Motivation takes a huge hit here as you start to weigh up your time spent with the potential payoff, or lack thereof. It’s true, all this time might not lead to anything. People might not even want to play your game. For me, three years of work with plenty more to go might be for nothing. So what do we do? Do we stop now? Make something smaller? Ignore the doubt and push forward? How do we push forward with such little motivation and so much doubt? I don’t have clear answers to these questions because it varies for every person and every game. I’ll talk about what I think though.

My thoughts and feelings that help push me forward

For me, it’s been three years of work. If I stop now that’s three years of work wasted. If no one plays the game it’s going to really suck because I’ve tried really hard to make something good and dedicated a lot of time to it. But at least I will have released something I’m proud of. The alternative is to stop now and have three years of effort sit on a hard drive for all eternity. That’s a major drive factor for me. A lot of my motivation stems from that desire to finish something and hope for the best. But that looming fear of no one playing the game is always in my mind.

For me motivation tends to come and go in waves. One month I’ll get lots done and feel great, but then a swarm of bugs prop up and kill that progression based motivation. The next month might be much slower and I’ll only get a little done. This is a constant pattern for me but that fear of wasting three years keeps me driven enough to push through each wave.

One of the biggest factors that keeps me working is my team. The people I’m working with on this project believe in it just as much as I do if not more. They rely on me to do my part, and I rely on them to do theirs. We all play a key role and to stop now would be to not only waste our own time, but to waste each other’s time as well. I think that’s a pretty big weight to bear, but it certainly helps keep me more motivated!

Another major factor for my motivation is let’s plays and feedback. We released a demo of our game. A completely polished snippet of what we intend the final product to be. Luckily for us people have given some super great feedback and even done a few lets plays on YouTube. Getting this feedback has been a major boost to motivation because we’ve had a few people say they really like what we’re doing. Obviously knowing people like your work, makes you want to do more.

The final major factor is the community of people around me working towards similar goals. I’m part of multiple online indie game communities. Most notably Game Jolt and the Twitch game development community. Twitch allows me to watch other people develop and even stream some of my own development as well. Hanging out with people who are more or less trying to achieve the same thing as you is super motivating. You have people with similar interests to talk to, ask questions, and even team up with! Best of all, as the people around you progress it drives your own progression as well. Other people are inspiring!

Final thoughts

So I suppose my tips for making a big project are work in a team of people who believe in what you’re making, try to make something you’re proud of, and try not to let the fear of no one playing the game get you down too much. If you can, get early, honest feedback. Sometimes asking your friends what they think isn’t enough. Try showing it off at an indie meet up if there’s one nearby. The feedback can really help keep you motivated and help you decide if the project is worth continuing. Finally, socialize with people who have similar interests and goals, be that online or in real life. Being part of a community can be really helpful for motivation.

When working on a big project motivation comes and goes in waves. Progression can be good one week and bad the next. Self doubt comes and goes. In the end, maybe no one will play your game but hopefully at the very least you will have made something you’re proud of. If you’re proud of what you have so far, then it’s probably worth your time.

About three quarters through writing this I nearly stopped and deleted the whole thing. I had a moment of self doubt. Is what I’m writing even helpful to anyone? Will anyone even want to read this? I don’t know. I figured I might as well finish it though in case someone does find it somewhat enjoyable. So if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading :)

Big projects are a challenging and risky undertaking and I wish anyone reading this the best with whatever you’re working on. I hope all of this has at least been relatable and maybe a little comforting.

Happy #notGDC

~ Nathan Auckett